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Fintan O’Toole: Science and stupidity are thriving. Don’t forget common sense

In the fight against Covid, the wisdom of the crowd has been proven right

One of the problems of the pandemic is that it is too easy to divide our understanding of it between science and stupidity. There is plenty of both. But there is also another kind of thinking: common sense. It needs to be given its due.

Science and stupidity are thriving equally.

On the one hand, we’re living through one of the greatest accomplishments in scientific history. The first genetic sequencing of the novel coronavirus was made available on January 10th last year. There are now at least half a dozen viable vaccines that seem to be highly effective.

Scientists, understandably, have little time for common sense – it's an inherently unscientific notion

If we had to have a deadly pandemic, this was a good time for it to arrive. The application of information technology to biology has allowed the world to react to the threat with a speed that seems almost magical.

On the other hand, there is an equal and opposite triumph of stupidity. The application of information technology to conspiracy theory, rumour and lies has also allowed idiocy to infect the world with astonishing rapidity.

The thing is, though, that most of us neither fully understand the scientific detail nor believe that the virus was invented by Bill Gates and that the vaccine is really a way of implanting a control device in our brains.

We live somewhere between the two states, not entirely sure of the science, taking the good faith of the experts on trust and trying to block out the mad voices on social media.

A consequence of this state of affairs is that the large majority who are neither scientists nor cranks don’t seem to matter very much. The concept that seems to work in most situations – the wisdom of crowds – seemingly does not apply to the pandemic.

Scientists, understandably, have little time for common sense – it’s an inherently unscientific notion. Cranks obviously don’t like it either – to the conspiracist, the unenlightened masses are poor, deluded sheeple.

But maybe the idea of common sense deserves a hearing. Maybe the wisdom of crowds should have a much bigger place in the management of the pandemic.

One reason to suggest this is historical. There’s good evidence that for most of the history of deadly infectious diseases, common sense was ahead of the game.

When plagues hit humanity, experts were baffled. The learned doctors of the church explained them as a consequence of sin and prescribed punishments to expiate it. The actual doctors, such as they were, said that the pestilence came from bad air or weird miasmas or unbalanced humours in the body and prescribed quack remedies.

But a lot of ordinary folk knew better. Most people worked on the land. They husbanded animals. They knew about contagion – if your sheep had scabs, you kept it away from the other sheep so they wouldn’t get them too. Common sense created one of the few effective public-health strategies: quarantine.

Common sense created vaccination too. It's quite right that we honour Edward Jenner, the brilliant English country doctor, who developed the vaccine against smallpox in 1796.

But Jenner made his great breakthrough because he listened to what ordinary young women told him. Supposedly ignorant milkmaids knew very well that if you contracted cowpox, the effects of which were relatively mild, you were immune from the horrific smallpox. Common knowledge was much smarter than the existing state of scientific medicine.

Of course, today’s milkmaids or sheep herders don’t sequence genomes or manipulate RNA. The technology brought to bear on our present pandemic functions at levels of both mechanical sophistication and theoretical expertise far beyond what was needed to develop quarantine or simple early vaccines.

However, pandemic control is not all – or even mostly – about this very precise science. It involves a lot of guesswork about how the virus will behave and in particular about how human beings will react.

Let’s go back to the beginning of the pandemic in Europe. On January 17th, 2020, the European Centre for Disease Control issued its first risk assessment of the novel coronavirus identified in Wuhan, then being called 2019-nCoV.

Here’s what it said: “There is no clear indication of sustained human-to-human transmission. . . the likelihood of importation of cases of 2019-nCoV to the EU is considered to be low. . . the assessed likelihood of further spread in the community setting within the EU/EEA is very low.”

In fact, as we now know, there were already cases of Covid-19 in Europe. This doesn’t mean that the ECDC experts were bad scientists, still less that they were part of a giant conspiracy of denial.

It just means that there are two kinds of science at work, and we must not confuse them. There’s the finely honed micro-level science of working out what the virus is and how to create treatments and vaccines. But there’s also the much less exact macro-level science of understanding how people and societies will behave.

It’s in this second arena that common sense matters. It matters because the material to be studied is people and their collective institutions, attitudes and interactions. We all have some expertise in that arena, and if you add that expertise together, there is a wisdom in the crowd.

That wisdom, in Ireland, has been consistently more pessimistic and cautious than Government policy. And it has been consistently right.

The public has appeared in the pandemic story only as miscreants – reckless party-goers, drinkers on the streets, entitled idiots off on their sun holidays. Who’d look for common sense from that lot?

But this is a classic case of all the attention going to the rule-breakers. The vast majority of us are not yobs. We’re responsible citizens. And in the tracking surveys commissioned by the State, we’ve been sending a very clear message.

The common sense of the public is not that we’re screaming for release from restrictions. It is that we’ll take even more pain – so long as it works.

Last autumn, for instance, the public was way ahead of Government in realising that things were being opened up too quickly. In October, the behavioural economist Pete Lunn of the Economic and Social Research Institute, pointed out in The Irish Times that the public debate on the pandemic (which was all about how to open up) was "miles off" the opinion of the majority of the population. If that majority opinion had been heeded, hundreds of lives would have been saved.

Yet, all along, the common sense of the public has been consistently dismissed. The official tone has often verged on the patronising – we can’t believe how good you’ve all been. We were assumed to be constantly at our wits’ end, even when the evidence was of great resilience, compassion, realism and calm.

The appropriate response to this evidence is not a pat on the back. It is a listening ear.